DES MOINES, Iowa — With the rolled-up shirtsleeves that are becoming a permanent fixture of the likely 2016 candidate's road appearances, Gov. Scott Walker navigated the Iowa Ag Summit with ease.
The Republican governor of Wisconsin was one of nearly a dozen presidential hopefuls who fielded questions from GOP mega-donor and ethanol industry executive Bruce Rastetter on Saturday, speaking before a crowd of about 1,000 — and more than 200 reporters.
Walker arrived at the farm-focused event about five minutes before his speech, the final one of the day. He left just as quickly as he came, heading to Dubuque for a fundraiser with U.S. Rep. Rod Blum.
One of only a few "question marks" on ethanol mandates going into the event, Walker's ultimate answer was well-received.
Stressing that he supports a "free and open market," Walker added that he would be willing to "go forward on continuing the renewable fuel standard."
Candidates who support ethanol mandates like the Renewable Fuel Standard — which requires that a minimum amount of corn-based ethanol be blended into the country's gasoline supply — traditionally perform best in Iowa, and one of the summit's sponsors was the pro-RFS group America's Renewable Future.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad put it plainly as he addressed the crowd Saturday morning: "Don't mess with the RFS."
As a state legislator, county executive and gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, Walker opposed such requirements. Asked about the RFS in January, the governor declined to stake a position.
Walker said Saturday that ultimately, he'd like to address market access so mandates like the RFS aren't necessary.
Critics signaled before the event that Walker might change his tune before the ag crowd in an effort to attract votes. But Ag Summit attendees said they weren't concerned that a shift in position could be political pandering.
"We’re open to some difference on where you might have been," said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. "People have other words for it, but I call that being realistic."
Shaw said Saturday's event was a good time to roll out a position on renewable fuels, noting that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came out in support of the RFS Saturday morning.
The earlier a candidate shows up on Iowans' radars, the better chance he or she has of gaining support down the road, Shaw added.
"Can someone win, place or show (in the Iowa caucuses) opposing the RFS? Sure. Is it a lot harder? Yes," Shaw said. "But you will not win Iowa in a general election if you oppose the RFS … Not supporting it would be bad politics and bad policy."
Asked about the federal wind energy tax credit, Walker's answer was similar to the one given by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of his closest competitors in the 2016 field.
Walker said he supports phasing out the credit over "a period of time," but added that wind energy should be part of an "overall, all-of-the-above energy policy."
The nature of the pre-set questions meant there was little room for any one candidate to outshine the others, but as the event's final speaker, Walker was a solid closer.
His answers were delivered smoothly and met positive reactions. Playing to the state that hosts the first nominating contest of the presidential election, Walker mentioned his Plainfield, Iowa, roots several times and named Branstad and Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds even more frequently.
"I think he's doing all the right things," said Steve Scheffler, Iowa's Republican National Committeeman.
Scheffler heads the conservative Christian Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, which holds an annual spring event Walker is scheduled to attend this year.
The crowd responded the most enthusiastically to Walker's comments about food stamps, applauding when he mentioned a provision in his proposed budget that would require recipients to be enrolled in a job training program and to be tested for drugs in order to receive benefits.
The governor compared public benefit recipients to football players sitting on the sidelines during a game. The ones that get called in by the coach, he said, are the ones standing nearby with their helmets on and mouth guards in — not the ones sitting on the bench with their feet up.
Former Iowa state Sen. Nancy Boettger, a Republican from Harlan, said she's ready to support Walker in a presidential bid.
"I was so impressed with him as governor of Wisconsin," Boettger said. "He did what was necessary to make Wisconsin fiscally viable. The whole country was watching, and they pulled it off."
Boettger said she likes the idea of a Midwestern governor in the White House, but especially loves the idea of a "proven governor who's done a good job."
"One of the things I really appreciate about him is his integrity," Boettger said. "He’s very sincere, very genuine. People like that in Iowa."
Coreen Trost, who volunteered at the event, echoed Boettger's feelings about Walker.
A dream 2016 ticket for Trost would include Walker and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also spoke at Saturday's event. Trost said she wants to see Walker do for the entire country what he's done for Wisconsin.
"He’s very genuine," Trost said. "He’s not scared off by ugly politics. He’s been through a lot and has held strong."
The Republican governor was the breakaway star of the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, launching him to an early lead among likely 2016 contenders, and he somewhat infamously stole the show at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. Saturday's event was the first time Walker was forced to jockey for the spotlight against Bush, and several observers commented that Walker fared well in the comparison.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, was a surprise crowd favorite, charming the audience and drawing laughs throughout his back-and-forth with Rastetter. Unlike Walker, Graham could be seen mingling with attendees on the floor before and after his time on stage.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also took his time signing autographs and speaking with reporters, though his anti-RFS stance was an unpopular one.
Walker will return to Iowa in April for the Faith & Freedom event and to headline a fundraising dinner.